From Far & Near
By Shashi Malla
Humanity Lacks Decisive Leadership
The astute Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari – and one of the leading thinkers of the modern world – has written an incisive and must-read essay in TIME magazine: “In the Battle Against Coronavirus, Humanity Lacks Leadership” (March 15, online). He is also the author of three books that have taken the world by storm:
- Homo Deus
- 21 Lessons for the 21st
Noah Hariri argues that it is not correct to blame the coronavirus pandemic on globalization, and by inference that by de-globalizing, more such outbreaks can be prevented. In fact, “while short-term quarantine is essential to stop epidemics, long-term isolationism will lead to economic collapse without offering any real protection against infectious diseases.” Thus, in the long-term the real antidote to pandemics is not segregation, but rather cooperation.
The erudite historian that he is, Noah Hariri vividly points out the many instances of epidemics that killed millions of people long before the current age of globalization – the Black Death, the small pox that devasted Central America, the 1918 flu.
The brilliant writer elucidates the lessons of history in confronting the current Coronavirus pandemic:
First, it is not at possible for any one country to protect itself by permanently closing its borders. In the inter-linked conditions of the 21st Century, Stone Age methods are bound to fail.
Second, history teaches that real protection comes from the sharing of reliable scientific information, and from global solidarity. International cooperation is a sine quo non for effective quarantine measures – which stops the spread of epidemics.
Third, perhaps the most important realization about such epidemics, is that “the spread of the epidemic in any country endangers the entire human species.” This is because viruses evolve and occasionally undergo mutations. Most mutations are harmless, but sometimes a mutation makes the virus more infectious or more resistant to the human immune system.
Such a mutant strain of the virus could rapidly spread in the human population. Even a single person hosts trillions of virus particles that undergo constant replication. And every infected person gives the virus trillions of new opportunities to become more adapted to humans and infinite possibilities to become more deadly.
Thus, a relatively rare disease like Ebola transformed into a raging epidemic from a single mutation in a single gene in only one virus that infected a single human being, somewhere in the Makona area of West Africa.
Noah Hariri paints a horrific possibility that such a mutation could be taking place in a single gene in the Novel Coronavirus that infected some person in Tehran, Milan, Seattle, Daegu or Wuhan! If this is indeed happening, it is a direct threat to every single person on the planet: “People all over the world share a life-and-death interest not to give the coronavirus such an opportunity. And that means that we need to protect every person in every country” [!]
The perspicacious writer also precisely points out that there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who lack even basic healthcare services. This is a grave danger to all of us. It has thus become a tautology to claim that the world has now shrunk to a single village.
Thinking about health in national terms is completely outdated. Providing better healthcare for Guatemalians and Congolese also helps protect Americans, Chinese and Europeans from epidemics. This is a simple and obvious truth, but unfortunately this seems to be hidden from the most important people in Europe and the United States!
A Leaderless World
Noah Hariri postulates that humanity faces an acute crisis not only due to the coronavirus, but because there is a lack of trust among humans and there is no leader to inspire a rudderless people worldwide: “To defeat an epidemic, people need to trust scientific experts, citizens need to trust public authorities, and countries need to trust each other.”
The reality of world politics is that under Trump, the United States has relinquished its traditional role as global leader, and at the same time, paved the way for China to assume that function. Currently, the U.S. with its idiosyncratic “America First” policy, no longer has any real friends – it has only interests.
But as the great English poet Alexander Pope so aptly wrote:
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest.”
And although, xenophobia, isolationism and distrust is now characteristic of the international system, the current crisis also presents an opportunity, as Noah Hariri writes: “Hopefully, the current epidemic will help humankind realize the acute danger posed by global disunity.”
The Chinese Perspective
The Coronavirus, like other contagious viruses, spreads fast. However, China and the Chinese people feel that what is actually spreading faster is Schadenfreude [malicious joy], xenophobia and naked racism against them. Recent headlines have been particularly disturbing with some Western media outlets referring to the disease as “a communist coronavirus” or a “yellow peril” and US President constantly mentioning [in tweets and official statements] the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus ( Beijing Review).
Rumors, misinformation and fears about the virus have flooded social media and news outlets across the world. Accusations of the Chinese government hiding the scope of the disease, inaction in the earlier stages and suppression of information at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party have quickly gone viral online.
The world in general is largely in the dark about how the whole Chinese nation was mobilized to contain this deadly virus from spreading, and how China is sacrificing its own economy to keep the world safe.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has, however, acknowledged China’s tremendous efforts in quelling the virus and has praised its determined actions.
In a previous era, the Chinese media has avoided sensationalism in response to major worldwide outbreaks like the H1N1 flu, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola and Zika. Rather it has chosen to treat and view those who are suffering with compassion, empathy and solidarity.
The American Response
Meanwhile, in America there is a crisis of confidence, and instead of offering resolute leadership, Trump is muddying the waters.
Previous American presidents have declared war on poverty or drugs. Woodrow Wilson led the country to victory in World War I , and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Truman in World War II. George W. Bush proclaimed the war on terrorism. Now, Donald Trump has gone to war with a virus: “It’s a medical war. We have to win this war.”
COVID-19 has ground much of American life to a halt, and Trump has cast himself as a wartime president facing a foreign enemy. However, he has directed his fire not only on the virus, but also on China, where the outbreak first emerged in the city of Wuhan, Hubei province: “We continue our relentless effort to defeat the Chinese virus.” While describing his government’s efforts, he repeatedly uses the phrase: “our war against the Chinese virus.”
According to TIME magazine (March 19), Trump’s rhetorical shift to saying the country is on a war footing, reflects a strategy to blunt criticism and deflect blame onto a foreign power. By positioning the virus as an enemy, Trump presents himself in an attacking mode, when in fact he’s very much on the defensive about the lethargic government response to the pandemic so far.
At the same time, by assigning blame to a continuing foreign threat, Trump is trying to justify why the shrinking economy is not his fault at all, after spending much of his presidency relentlessly boasting about the booming economy and coupling it to his own re-election campaign.
The writer can be reached at:[email protected]